PSU has versatility, depth in secondary

UNIVERSITY PARK – There’s a good bit of irony and also potentially some concern in Bill O’Brien’s idea to have two of his top defensive backs play some linebacker this season.

Let’s backtrack to a year ago, when John Butler, then Penn State’s defensive backs coach and currently the defensive coordinator, made a very telling statement about what he inherited in the secondary.

“I know a lot of the readers out there are wondering why we don’t play nickel, and I guess I’m wondering why I only have six defensive backs when I took the job here,” Butler candidly said last October.

He was speaking of how there were only six DBs on scholarship, which of course limited what he could do from a scheme standpoint. The Nittany Lions, in fact, were so limited that they couldn’t play nickel coverage all season.

The good news is that’s no longer a problem. There’s much more depth in the secondary this year, and the unit features arguably the best overall player on the team in junior safety Adrian Amos, along with some other experienced veterans and talented youngsters.

Amos is so good and so versatile that O’Brien plans to use him all over the place – safety, cornerback and even linebacker.

“It makes me feel good because he trusts my ability to play those positions,” Amos said. “But also I have to be prepared and make sure I do know all those checks and coverages and everything and learn the techniques of each position.”

Senior safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong also will be in the mix to play some linebacker, O’Brien said, and he can’t wait for that opportunity.

“I would enjoy that a lot,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “I enjoy hitting, so that’s a primary asset of the defense. For me to be at Linebacker U playing linebacker, I’m excited about it. I might not be the biggest linebacker down there, but trust me, I’m not going to let anything get by me.”

The fact that Amos and Obeng-Agyapong are versatile enough to handle their own positions plus potentially spend time at linebacker is a testament to their talents.

It’s also a testament to how different things are this year in terms of options provided by the secondary.

The bad news, though, is what it says about the Lions’ situation at linebacker. Penn State has had a remarkable run of success there in the past decade – producing star after star with such players as Paul Posluszny, Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Dan Connor – but the linebacker depth is as weak as it’s been in a long, long time this year.

Just because Amos and Obeng-Agyapong could handle things at linebacker doesn’t mean they are best suited for that role, and it’s not exactly the best-case scenario.

Then again, what’s happened to the program in the past two years has been far from the best-case scenario, so O’Brien is doing what he always must do, which is adapt and make the best of things.

In this case, it’s about getting the best football players on the field, and if the backup linebackers aren’t good enough to be out there, then O’Brien at least has the option to turn to guys like Amos and Obeng-Agyapong.

“You never know,” Obeng-Agyapong said when asked how much time he and Amos could spend at linebacker. “It depends on the flow of the game, the team we’re playing. You could be there a lot, you could be there minimal times.”

Amos pointed out he won’t be playing a traditional linebacker spot, but more of an extra linebacker/DB in a nickel package. In that scenario the Lions would be in a 4-2-5 scheme, which is something that could be on display quite a bit this year.

“I don’t think [O’Brien] was really saying I was going down to play linebacker,” Amos said. “We play a lot of nickel packages and things like that, so I’m taking out a linebacker and playing that position, but I’m covering the receivers in slots.”

Amos played cornerback last year and is moving to safety this season. He’s been asked so frequently which position he likes best that he has a stock answer.

“People ask me that question, I just say defense,” Amos said. “I think I do good things at each one of them.

“I think [cornerback is] the easiest thing to do,” he added. “You’re locked in, and all it is is just you and him. At safety you get the reins to do a lot of stuff, anything you want, you can disguise more. And then coming down in the box [at linebacker] you get to show your ability to hit the run.”

Sophomore Trevor Williams is slated to start at cornerback, impressive since he began his career at receiver and has adapted quickly to defense.

“For him to come from offense to defense like that playing the college level, and for him to make that an easy transition was really good,” Obeng-Agyapong said.

Redshirt freshman Malik Golden also switched from receiver to defense and will compete for time as a backup safety.

Senior Malcolm Willis and junior Ryan Keiser are battling to start at the other safety spot, while sophomore Jordan Lucas is the other cornerback. Sophomore cornerback Da’Quan Davis also figures to be in the mix.

Penn State had so little depth in the secondary last year that it not only limited what the team could do in games, it also limited how much the top players could improve in practice.

“Having guys you can compete with every day brings your game to the next level,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “It’s better for the team as well because if somebody goes down, you always have that next guy to step up and you feel comfortable with them.”

“Everybody’s getting pushed and held accountable,” Amos said. “Even if you’re not threatened for your spot, you’re still being competitive and playing every day.”

Amos isn’t threatened for his spot, but watching how many spots he plays this season and how effective he is at each one will be a big key for Penn State’s defense.

The even bigger key, compared to last year, will be the sheer number of bodies available to play different positions in the secondary.

“We have a lot of DBs this year and depth in the secondary,” Amos said.